Mission: Detect Arctic Methane

The rock room has been a space of design and construction for many CO2 soil profilers for arctic field sites, and this summer was no 3exception. Jack and I created an automated soil gas sampler, for the measurement of methane and CO2 from a series of soil depth chambers in northern Norway. The system included a one-metre long, encased, open path methane analyzer that consecutively received samples from the soil depth chambers. The methane analyzer was not at our disposal during system construction, so a surrogate analyzer was created  in the lab using a sealed compost bin equipped with a CO2 probe to mimic the 9L analyzer. It proved to be a great addition to the lab!
Late June Jack and I departed on a three-week journey to the Arctic. The first leg of our trip took us through Iceland to Bergen, where we had four days to work with the methane analyzer and get accustomed to the short nights before experiencing the midnight sun at 69oN. 2Then the whole team flew to Finnmark, the northernmost county of mainland Norway. We landed in Alta and drove a scenic three hours inland to the small town of Karasjok; the town campground was home base during our stay.
6The field site is located at a mire near Iskoras, a 30 minute drive from town and a 3 km walk from the road. The site was selected for its spatial representation of the stages of permafrost degradation. There are four transects throughout the mire, each with four subsites equipped with soil chambers at depth, temperature and moisture sensors, and open top chambers.
During the July visit, another team installed an eddy covariance tower that stayed for the duration of the summer. During the July visit, another team installed an eddy covariance tower that stayed for the duration of the summer. It was a busy, challenging and enjoyable 10 days in the field that entailed many hours armpit-deep in wet soil installing chambers and created an appreciation of the midnight  5sun’s convenience. We enjoyed frequent chocolate breaks, unique lunches like pickled mackerel on rye, and brown cheese. Quickly, we learned not to stand too still or the mosquitoes would have a feast!
When I returned in September the berries were plentiful, the midnight sun no longer shone, and the flies were still hungry. More soil chambers were installed; 48 depth chambers were spread throughout the four transects and six surface FD chambers, relocated from Svalbard, were installed at the automatic transect. The last day in the field was spent collecting gas samples, and prepping the equipment and site for the fast approaching winter.

7Many thanks to Dr. Hanna Lee, Dr. Casper Christiansen and Dr. Dave Risk for their guidance, expertise, and providing the opportunity to expand my field and technical experience throughout the development of this project.

 

By Renee McDonald

Urban mobile surveys: Toronto

Typically, FluxLab mobile surveys involve driving around oil and gas developments looking for fugitive emissions with a truck full of gas analysers. When I started work in the lab in January, Dave asked me to take the same mobile survey techniques that the lab has been refining over the years, and apply them to a totally different environment. After a few weeks mulling this over, I decided to see what I could find out about methane emissions in cities!

We started off with a test run in Toronto this summer. Even though it’s a bit far from Antigonish, Toronto made sense since there has already been a lot of air quality research done there, and because Debra Wunch and Greg Evans, two researchers at the University of Toronto, agreed to collaborate with us. So in late July, Susan and I packed up the truck and headed off to the big city. After a few days driving (during which we got to explore the regional changes in methane between Antigonish and Toronto) we arrived downtown and were ready to get started.

The first thing to do was to get Wunch and Evan’s analysers set up in the truck along with our own. Debra Wunch’s group has been IMG_6876exploring methane emissions in the city by bike, towing their gas analyser along in a trailer. This meant that it was already wrapped in a small self-contained package, and it was no trouble to pop the wheels off the trailer and move the whole thing into the truck bed. The most time-consuming part was attaching their weather station to the roof of the truck which required drilling a few holes in the support beams we already have up there (shhhhh!). Both the Wunch analyser and our own measure methane, carbon dioxide, and water; ours can additionally detect ethane and methane isotopes and theirs measures carbon monoxide. The combination of the two analysers gave us a very useful suite of analytes that should extract distinctive source signatures from different types of emissions. To top it off, Greg Evans added some portable instruments for measuring particle size and black carbon which rode in the cab with us with their sampling tubing stuck out the window.

We planned out three different routes around the city (see map) targeting different types of known methane emitters, and we wanted to cover each of these three times to get a sense of how variable these emissions are.

Over the 9 days of the campaign, we managed to target 50 or so pieces of infrastructure in triplicate, including power plants, Dodge1wastewater treatment plants, and different kinds of manufacturing facilities. We decided to first drive each of the routes at night, since the trapping of emissions under a low night time boundary layer might increase concentrations and allow us to sniff out some of the weaker emitters. This meant starting surveys at 9 pm and sometimes finishing after 4 am! These night time drives were full of interesting emissions and the overall stable concentrations made it easy to see some very high enhancements above background values. As cool as it was to explore new areas while the city was totally asleep, the daytime surveys were much more pleasant. When we saw big emissions during daytime surveys, we would stop and see if we could identify the specific source of the methane, scanning the various elements of the infrastructure using a Forward Looking InfraRed camera (see left picture).

In general, the highest methane emissions we saw came from parks built on top of old landfills. This was especially the case at night when low winds and a shallow mixed layer let concentrations really build up. A few times we saw some mystery methane: sudden high concentrations in areas where we hadn’t flagged any piece of infrastructure as a likely source. This would lead to a bit of detective work as we drove zigzag around the signal, trying to figure out where it was coming from. One of these mystery spikes was the highest of any we saw, and after a bit of searching, we wound up here:Lake shore blvd 2
It seems like this captured patch of sludge down on the lakeshore was a stronger emitter than any of the pieces of infrastructure that we had targeted! This was quite surprising, but we’d have to do a bit more investigating to confirm it, and there’s a lot more work to be done to put this into the context of overall emission volumes in the city.

On the whole, we saw a whole lot of really interesting emission signals from different types of sources, and now it’s on to crunching through the data so that we have a better overall picture of sources in the city as we plan out our next run!

By Alex Tevlin

 

The Littoral Zone of Lochaber Lake: A Concealed Frenzy

Looking out on the waters of Lochaber lake the words “serenity”, “tranquility”, and “stillness” come to mind. The waters often appear still, being protected from wind by the steep sloping hills which surround Lochaber. Some vegetation thrives along the coastline, and the banks of the lake descend into a 70 m deep tectonic rift in […]

Sunshine and Prairie Lands

dsc_0333Out of the blue, Dave Risk from the Flux Lab contacted me to see if I was interested in assisting in upcoming field research concentrating on monitoring fugitive gas leaks in the oil and gas industry. Before I knew it, (and without too much contemplation), I was hopping on a plane and am back in Alberta. This time, in the Peace River region. And this time, it’s great to be assisting in valuable research which delves into the impacts of the energy sector on greenhouse gas emissions.
Having a B.Sc. from Saint Francis Xavier with an environmental and biology background, this is not exactly my area of expertise. I better wake up and drink another coffee and learn how to use a MacBook! What are these huge and heavy black boxes we have to lug around and keep nice and warm every night? Latency errors on the Picarro… What have I gotten myself into?
Luckimg_0909ily, by my side were some competent Flux Lab technicians to show me the ropes and share some expert knowledge. In return, I shared some professional knowledge from years of working in the oil and gas industry.
Each day, beginning at 7:30 we would haul out the Teledyne and Picarro (I discovered the big black boxes contained gas analyzers) and once the analyzers were happy (i.e. up to temperature and cavity pressure fine-tuned) we would hit the road. We performed two mobile surveys daily, and each survey route had to be replicated three times (or maybe four ties for good measure, not because we messed up!). While surveying, you can see methane, ethane, and hydrogen sulphide concentrations varying and sometimes a spike in concentrations resulting from a leak. I keep telling everyone science is cool!
The Prairies can certainly see some very cold days in November, but we were very fortunate to have mild weather and sunshine on our side for the majority of the campaign. Several weeks later and a LOT of kilometres on the Tacoma (BTW the truck deserves an oil change!) we wrapped up our field work in Medicine Hat (aptly nameddsc_0301 The Gas City). I was surprised to see how much oil and gas infrastructure is located in southeastern Alberta. I was astonished to discover that Medicine Hat is actually a pretty cool city, with picturesque historic brick buildings downtown, top-notch biking trails and super friendly locals.

Thanks to the Flux Team for hiring me to take part in this gas emissions monitoring campaign. It’s exciting work resulting in valuable data which our government and industry can use to make sound decisions. Until next time!

By: Sam Hansen

Highlands: Winter 2015 Edition

By Laura Graham

Sometimes, in order to get things done, you have to find people that are as crazy as yourself. That is precisely what I have done this winter in order to accomplish some of my fieldwork tasks!

Dave, Christina, Lynsay, Nea and I ventured up to North Mountain, Cape Breton in early February. The first challenge upon our arrival – find a place to park the truck. Typically in the wintertime, there is a small area to park in front of the emergency shelter near my field site. However, due to the recent large snowfall, there was no place to put the truck, and we put the shovels to use right away as we were required to shovel a spot out ourselves!

After strapping on our snowshoes and traipsing past the Environment Canada weather station, we found what we were looking for – little metal towers with 12V car batteries, solar panels, dataloggers, and various scientific instrumentation (anemometer, snow depth sensor, etc). Our goals for this trip included getting the Eddy Covariance tower running (as in powered, not running a half marathon) and installing the mystical “profiler system” (okay, not so mystical).

The mystical profiler system is actually a series of cylinders and tubes running to an enclosure on each of the metal towers that contains a pump and two “GPs”. A GP is a sensor that continuously takes CO2 concentration measurements. The cylinders and tubes are installed at various heights within the soil and snow profile, allowing the recording of a suite of CO2 concentrations. For this particular trip, we needed to install the sampling cylinders and tubing. With over 1 m of snow to dig through and a pre-wind chill temperature of -18°C, installation proved challenging. However, with Team Trooper, we certainly succeeded! Big props to Lynsay and Nea for their supreme snow-pit digging skills. With the profiler systems installed, I hope to be able to understand how wind affects CO2 transport through snowpacks.

Another trip up to the Highlands in the near future is necessary to ensure that the profiler system is working, the snow hasn’t buried the solar panels, and all is humming along happily. Pending road conditions, that trip will hopefully be this week!

For more information about my research, check out my Research Profile: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=icSJ2h30Tkc&feature=youtu.be

Stay warm!

Laura

Antarctica: Dry Valley Instant Replay

By Dave Risk

As I explained briefly (I think) in an earlier post, the McMurdo Dry Valleys are desert-like deglaciated portions of coastal Antarctica that are of scientific interest for biologists in particular, because of the extreme dryness and cold. Special organisms live here that cling to life on, and in, the rocks.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McMurdo_Dry_Valleys) For my trip, we will be visiting Taylor Valley (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taylor_Valley) and staying adjacent to Spaulding Pond (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spaulding_Pond) at the bottom of the Howard Glacier. Spaulding pond is a biological hotspot, relative to other areas in the Dry Valleys at least. The pond sits directly across from the Canada glacier, so named in ~1910 by Canadian physicist Charles Wright who was exploring the area with Robert Scott.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canada_Glacier)
Our trip into Spaulding Pond was delayed by poor helicopter weather. The situation was re-evaluated every 2 hours until at about 4 pm flights were called off. When we did finally get into the field, it was snowing. We broke down the two 1-ton helicopter sling loads that had been delivered days earlier with our science equipment, camping gear, food, and fuel. We erected our large “Polar Haven” tent, and our small sleeping tents for two. A Sigma camp stove furnace was installed in the Polar Haven to keep us warm when working inside. The lavatory tent (ahem) was also erected some distance from the main camp.

I went to visit my long-term measurement station on the first evening after dinner. Unfortunately, the station had experienced a failure over the course of the year, and didn’t record everything we had hoped for. While we had been successful the three previous years in collecting year-round records, we had been less lucky and had only captured some data from the past few weeks. That is unfortunately how it goes sometimes in harsh regions science.  There were, however, clear signs that the measurement station could be repaired which gave me hope for the coming year. But, I would have to be busy to undertake and test relatively major repairs, plus finish my other planned experiments. Luckily, there is an abundance of daylight in the polar summer!

The snow persisted for the first 3 days, with an accumulation of several centimetres, all of which is quite unusual for the Dry Valleys. Ian, the 11-time Dry Valley veteran, commented that he had never seen so much snow, or the Valleys so wet, in all his visits. We likely received much of the annual precipitation during our stay. And, it was somewhat cooler than usual for this time of year, with temperatures persistently below -3. Spaulding Pond, which was largely covered by ice when we arrived, froze over completely during the cloudy days. For my colleagues who were flying, or mapping sediment characteristics, the snow either curtailed or totally arrested their research. Trey and Stu fuelled an evening Dry Valley tent party on the 2nd night, which raised spirits significantly. Luckily, my own work was unaffected by the weather, but I certainly felt for the others, and for Trey and Stu whose trip back to Scott Base was postponed a full day owing to cancelled heli movements.

When the sun did arrive, the landscape was transformed within hours. With the low humidity (normally less than 20%), the snow sublimated quickly despite the subzero temperatures. In places, one could even see vapour leaving the soil surface. Though the pond ice and cold temperatures persisted, clear blue sky and brown rock was a welcome sight. Trey and Stu unfortunately missed the beautiful blue sky Dry Valleys. With time, our UAV flights and sediment mapping programs got running. The place became DRY, and coupled with the thinner ozone above the south pole, skin is at risk. I had less trouble with the sun than the dryness. Several times daily I had to slather glycerin cream on my crusty peeling nose, and eventually even had to start putting it IN my nose to help arrest dryness and bleeding. Wind and poor weather returned shortly before our departure, but the departure day itself was stunning, still cool but with clear skies and light winds that allowed some of us to work without jackets.

We pulled out from the field slightly earlier than originally expected, so as to make an earlier northbound Hercules flight to New Zealand. Our original schedule was for a later Hercules, but that became impossible as Board meetings were being held on base, and our original plane was oversubscribed with important visitors. In all, we were in the field for 9 days including our late arrival and early pullout. We still got things done (barely) by making up for the bad weather by making hay on the good days. During the trip, I erected a secondary measurement station to measure the CO2 activity of the Pond and adjacent soils, installed soil gas samplers that I would visit twice daily, and started reprogramming the main station. I filled 400 gas sampling vials, and worked from 8 am – 10 pm most days, with regular breaks in between to help others troubleshoot their technical issues with UAVs, etc. Maggie and Marwan helped me along the way as well, with gas sampling, and to create timeseries maps of the infrared soil skin temperatures across all my sampling sites. The UAV flights mapped features above my sampling area, and my gas data will be useful to them as ground truthing information.

Overall my experience was very positive. Our group was fabulous. The climate wasn’t harsh, or uncomfortable, and in fact I brought too many clothes.  Most of all, the place was simply unlike any other. The Dry Valleys are remarkable for what they lack, and what they aren’t. There are no animals, predators to watch for, birds, or even visible insects. On calm days there is no sound except the occasional creak of a glacier, or a crack of the pond ice, or the occasional flap of a helicopter. The armoured soil surface, created by frost and which looks so durable and joint jarring, is actually soft to the touch, as it rides atop layers of fluffy frost-heaved sand. There are no smells – at all. This is a prototypical environment of sterility and sensory deprivation that few will ever experience.

For me, there may be an opportunity again next year as part of Charlie’s group but alas I’ll be back in the classroom, so perhaps a StFX student will again benefit from this polar collaboration like Chris did last year.

Antarctica: Teachings of “The Ice”

By Dave Risk

What scientific trip would be complete without some new insights into natural ecosystems, and oneself?  I learned that:

1. My bladder can, on occasion, hold more than a litre of urine. One may wonder how I learned such a thing, but it should be obvious when one considers the environmental sensitivity of the Dry Valleys. Absolutely nothing may remain behind during field work – our waste included. During our time in the field, we captured everything, including our pee, which was decanted from our personal 1L jugs (carried with us as required) into larger containers. Mine was labeled both with a “P” and a handwritten “Gravy”, which is how I distinguished it from that of others. As a team, were were able to monitor our collective urine production volume, and hydration status, and said topic occasionally became a discussion item in morning meetings. We did a lot of sharing. Anyways, I learned that sometimes a 1L container unfortunately just isn’t enough on some mornings! For those wanting to know about #2 (not item 2 below), you can ask me directly.

2. Patience. Remote field travel involves extensive waiting. My travels from Nova Scotia to the Dry Valleys took about 8 days of “Hurry up and Wait” travel, involving multiple itinerary adjustments, lost bags, etc. In the field, our chopper often couldn’t get to us because of weather over the Ice Shelf. So, one must be patient, and after all that, the success of a field campaign is still in the end determined by weather. Certainly some of our field movements in the Dry Valleys were restricted in this year’s weather, and some things didn’t perhaps get done as thoroughly as was hoped for. So, one must be lucky. I thought often about the massive waits endured by early Antarctic explorers like Scott, Shackleton, and Amundsen. Over-wintering in coastal Antarctic huts (I visited Scott’s) would be a test of boredom to the extreme. Overall, my excursions this year to 70N and 80S emphasized that remote travel is not an adrenaline activity. Even in our age of modern transport, endurance and patience are the requisite skills. Having good people around really helps.  Though we like to think of early explorers as thrill-seekers, the reality would have been exactly the opposite. They were conservative, calculating, and most of all patient – in ways that I would probably never even understand.

3. Time travel. For several years, we’ve been running this project to document biological activity in Antarctic Dry Valley soils. We have done so by measuring emissions of gases (mainly CO2) breathed out by living microbes. The biological emissions in this amazingly near-sterile environment have proven to be scanty at best, and clouded by competing variations in CO2 from several processes including 1) geology, 2) soil water CO2 solubility, 3) wind, and 4) freeze/thaw. This year added to our understanding of these processes, and will contribute to a larger paper on teasing apart emissions from each of these sources. But, this year we also tried something new, which was to deploy one of Forerunner Research’s new waterproof GP CO2 sensors (http://www.forerunnerresearch.ca/GP.php) in a pond.  Continuous measurements in the water showed that photosynthetic algae organisms would ramp up quickly in response to available sunlight, even in ultra-cold ice-covered waters. Decomposer microbes would ramp up closely on their heels. Despite the fact that their temperatures were similar, the variations in CO2 that we observed in the pond were several times higher than in adjacent soils. One can’t help but draw comparisons to early life on earth, where water bodies were teeming with life, but the land surface was devoid of biological activity, and dominated by geochemical processes. I wasn’t just transported in my imagination to that earlier time in the earth’s evolution, but I was observing these patterns and processes in real time, almost exactly as they might have manifested themselves over a billion years ago. It makes sense that the searches for life, and water, on other planets should be closely intertwined. More on this as we write up the results.

Admittedly, my all-time highlight of my winter vacation may have been my last minute ski trip on the Ross Ice shelf, which I squeezed in during the last night on base after hurriedly packing. Maggie and I had gone for a ski a couple of weeks earlier when we arrived on base, but conditions were less than optimal as the warm Christmas weather made for corn snow conditions. But, at the end of my trip, the Ice Shelf roads to the airfield (8 km) were well frozen and freshly groomed, like a 50 m wide ski skating track. It was sunny, windless, and FAST. Mount Erebus and Castle Rock were looming above. The drivers of the occasional balloon-tired US Antarctic Program trucks were giving me huge waves. I was in a long sleeve shirt, without gloves.  For a fairly rabid XC skier, it’s hard to imagine a better bucket-filling evening. My life is now complete.

This is the end of my Antarctic 2015 blogging. Aside from the photos that appear in these posts, I’ll dump my images to http://basil.stfx.ca/photo in a folder called “Antarctica 2015” or similar. I also have about an hour of video footage, which I’ll mix down at some point in collaboration with anyone who would like to help. Monitor my @drisk_eh twitter handle the @FluxLabX handle (also visible on the http://www.fluxlab.ca webpage scroller) for updates on the progress of these forthcoming media posts.

Thanks for reading!

Antarctica: Team Awesome

By Dave Risk

So, you know that I’m headed to the Antarctic Dry Valleys, and with a team of scientists.  But, who are these folks, and what are they trying to accomplish?

Charlie Lee. Microbiologist specializing in extremeophile microbes. University of Waikato (NZ). Our Commander-in-chief and acronym aficionado who can also take a good joke. Lover of Antarctic science in all its forms. Project goal: To coordinate a multidisciplinary project using cutting edge tools to examine the distribution and activity of biological communities, winds and microclimate, and mechanisms of sediment redistribution.

Ian McDonald. Microbiologist specializing in extremeophiles. University of Waikato (NZ). Eleven-time Dry Valley veteran has it all mastered, and can DJ the best electronica mess-tent dance party in the Dry Valleys. Project goal: Support our science as the senior overseeing logistician.

Marwan Katurji. Meteorologist specializing in localized flow in complex terrain. University of Canterbury (NZ). Not easily fazed except by delayed dinners. Frequently gives understated nods from across the room that, without words, say “That’s the way it is, my friend”. Project goal: To fly UAV across and down our Dry Valley to map small scale wind fields.

Paul Bealing. Technologist specializing in geo-informatics and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).  University of Canterbury (NZ). A modern day MacGuyver, lover of Ukranian vodka, and old motorcycles of any nationality. Possibly the Southern Hemisphere’s quickest-draw wit. Project Goal: To keep the Canterbury UAV off the ground.

Jayne Belnap. Specialist in arid-region surface processes. United States Geologic Survey (USGS) Moab. A delightfully positive shoot-from-the-hipster American, who has seen it all, and knows no limits. A true curiosity kid. Project Goal: To establish the role of wind in redistributing Dry Valley sediments, and healing human landscape scars.

Maggie Lau. Extremeophile microbiologist specializing in harsh region (poles, deserts) microbial communities. Princeton University (USA). The quick learner, quiet observer, and detail master, nothing slips past Maggie. But she is not all business and is always good for a big (100 lb-er) belly laugh. Project Goal: To step in seamlessly for a missing team member, and co-pilot a UAV with multi-spectral camera that she’s never flown let alone seen, and conduct related ground truth sampling of several kinds.

Len Gillman. Forest ecologist come pinch-hitter UAV pilot. Aukland University of Technology (NZ). Chillaxed rock-climbing university administrator, exposed this trip to the mind altering stress of piloting (and landing) a high speed computer controlled drone for which he had received only a couple days training. Alternated between joke-making from the camping chair, and teeth clenching – but he pulled it off! Project Goal: To capture spectral images that would allow for identification of map algal mats from the sky.

Dave Risk. Soil gas emissions expert specializing in harsh regions and instrumentation. St Francis Xavier University, Canada. Poor sod obviously went too far south for his winter vacation this year. Frightfully limited wardrobe as a consequence of a long lasting luggage snafu, but did just fine thanks with 2x underwear purchase before heading to The Ice. Project Goal: To Check on an existing instrument that measures microbes breathing, and to undertake related spatial sampling campaigns.

For a portion of our field work, we also had two honorary members embedded in the group:

Trey Ratcliff. http://www.stuckincustoms.com  A computer science graduate photography wizkid artist who is sought as much by fun as he seeks fun himself. Discovered red wine only in his forties and won’t likely ever look back. Project Goal: Experience one of the remotest places, and capture images that mortals cannot even see.

Stu Robertson. http://www.peacein10000hands.com  A Kiwi videographer and photography artist. An artistic olympian who will adapt, stretch, or contort – whatever it takes to get the prize. A great storyteller that in Antarctica could be bested only by Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen themselves. Project Goal: Live his dream of visiting Antarctica, and return with unforgettable media.

While the bios that are a bit tongue in cheek, they emphasize both the multidisciplinary nature of the team, and the personalities of the actors in my Antarctic drama. Charlie (and Craig Cary who wasn’t along but is heavily involved) both recognize the types of work needed for these unique regions, and have worked hard to put together international teams to get ‘er done.  Personally, I met Charlie and Craig 4 years ago when they found me at a meeting in Norway, and we have collaborated ever since. This process is very representative of the way that science works. And, throughout the project we naturally developed areas of overlap – where our individual work could be enhanced by additional imaging or sampling of the same sites in different ways. It’s only good luck that our team was so colourful, but for that I’m especially thankful.


I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Antarctica New Zealand and Scott Base as partners. ANZ supports all logistical demands of NZ government funded Antarctic research. Working in the Antarctic is challenging.  Basically, ANZ makes sure that the scientists are provided for, safe, and can do their work without worrying about the minutiae of gear shipments, helicopter logistics, tents and gear, climbing equipment and vehicles etc. These services are provided almost free to the scientific teams. As such, New Zealand punches above its weight in Antarctic research. While the U.S. has some similar mechanisms for Arctic research, Canada does little more than contribute some additional funds for work that is done in our own north. Here, it is generally up to individual researchers to make all their own logistical arrangements – which can be extremely challenging (and discouraging). Both ANZ and Scott Base are extremely well run. They are environmentally conscious, work smart, allocate their funds to the right things, and work collaboratively with the other international bases in the region including the U.S., the Italians, and others.

Antarctica: The Waiting Game

By Dave Risk

Today’s helicopter trip out to our Dry Valley field sites got postponed at the last minute. There is a lot of hurry up and wait in field work like this. The weather doesn’t swing wildly, but the visibility is somewhat unpredictable as low clouds and gentle snowstorms move past. We have 2 hours until the next call.  So, to occupy myself for the next 2 hours, I thought it might be nice to describe Scott Base, which has been my living quarters for the past few days.

Scott Base is New Zealand’s home in the Antarctic, and is named after Robert Falcon Scott, leader of two British expeditions to the Ross Sea area. It sits on Ross Island, which is enveloped by the Ross Ice Sheet that flows off the continent and into the sea. Early huts used by Scott’s and Shackleton’s expeditions are still standing on the island. Shackleton was one of the competitors at the time to reach the south pole. Amundsen won, but Shackleton’s story is well known as his ship Endurance was trapped in pack ice and was slowly crushed. He and many of his team survived by camping on the ice then rafting to land. In fact, a hut from one of his expeditions still stands across the hill from here, and apparently his last meal still sits on a plate on the table. This is a historic location. Many countries have bases in Antarctica. The massive American McMurdo Base is just around the corner, 3 km away. But, most are farther away, and scattered around the continent’s coast. Most I believe are accessed by boat, some for example from South America etc. Scott and McMurdo are very convenient as they’re in reach of NZ by air – barely. Many of the cargo aircraft that fly the route, like the Hercules, have about 10 hours of fuel onboard. The flight is nearly 8, so about halfway the pilot and ground crew must make the call whether the landing conditions on the ice shelf are suitable. If conditions look bad, the plane must turn around for New Zealand. Ships can come in very late in the season, as the ice breaks up a bit.  A 2 year old US Icebreaker is actually waiting out in the ice right now which will take some stuff out.  Other vessels will come in February with fuel and food for overwintering etc.

Basically, Scott Base is a modular, organic, growth of green buildings linked by long corridors. It sits on posts, as is normal in all permafrost environments. The idea is to protect the permafrost from thaw to maintain stability. Scott Base is primarily an operations staging facility, with no real science labs, and no real resident scientists. The scientists are transients. Most are doing work out on the ice, or in the Dry Valleys, or are here en route to meet up with ship x or y. The annual schedule is organized to avoid having too many people here at once.


In the winter, there is a skeleton staff that remains, basically to just keep things alive, and to prepare for the coming season. Surprisingly, they have a hard time identifying staff who are willing to overwinter for the relatively low salaries. I suggested they try recruiting in Canada! What Winnipeger wouldn’t rather be in Antarctica than at their boring desk all winter? It gets cold, but not as bad as one would think.  It usually hovers in the -30 to -40 range. The real stinging Antarctic temperatures occur on the ice sheet closer to the south pole (1500 km from here) which is both high elevation and of course in the epicentre of southern cold. For winter staff, often renovations are in the works, as they will be again this year.

Photos of overwintering parties line the corridor outside the canteen. The older photos are great, and hint at a Scott Base that would have been quite a bit different than today. In the late 1970s, Scott Base would have hit its second decade, but I suspect that operations would have been far smaller. In the old days, they used to use sledding teams, and often dogs and long beards were the flavour of the day in the photos. The use of dog teams lasted perhaps until the mid 1980s if my interpretation of the photos is any indicator. There are also some rather clever overwintering photos from the early 1990s when everyone was listening to too much “Wham” in the polar darkness.


Food is a big part of life here on Base.  The cook Tracy is fantastic, and every meal is like eating at a great restaurant. She is always running, as there are basically 5 meals a day, and most breads and pastries are cooked onsite. The mid-morning and mid-afternoon meals are just snacks, and the break itself is called “Smoko”, which is a holdover from blue collar NZ towns where the workers would get a smoke break. But, they likely wouldn’t get pastries, dips, and continual access to an industrial espresso maker. There is also a bar, called the Tatty Flag.

As for my science stuff, it’s ready to go. All the computer programs for our instrumentation are prepped, and I’m keen to see if our continuous measurements through the last 12 months have been successful. I’m a little nervous about it. Twelve months is a long time to leave an instrument without checking, and of course there’s the dark where we have nothing but batteries to sustain the station. But if it did work, we’ll have some great data on the gas dynamics of these soils, which record the “breathing” of both microbes and geochemical processes. Was there a microbial pulse this year as we had seen in another valley? Will our depth profiler measurements allow us to establish the depth at which these gases originated?

But for now, we are on standby, waiting another couple of hours to get word from the helicopter folks.

[Len and Maggie, from my team, waiting in the lounge for news about our heli flight]